The gunshot echoed across the prairie. I looked down at poor Whiskey as I slowly reloaded my Peacemaker. He was a good horse and his death was on me. Well, me and the damned rattlesnake that spooked him.

I was half asleep in the saddle and noticed the rattler at about the same time as Whiskey. The old boy reared and threw me, which was embarrassing enough for someone like me, but then to add insult to injury, he came down wrong and broke his leg. Shooting him was the only decent thing to do.

It was a shame too because even though Whiskey was a little long in the tooth and could be an ornery cuss at times, he was a decent mount. We’d only been together for a few months, but I’d miss him just the same. It wouldn’t be easy or cheap to find another stallion as well trained.

I checked to make sure the hammer of my Colt .45 was on the one empty chamber before holstering it. Some men didn’t like limiting themselves to five bullets. I preferred to make sure I didn’t accidently shoot myself in the leg or foot. Go figure. Besides, if I needed more than five bullets I’d be using my Centennial instead. Speaking of which, I needed to make sure the rifle hadn’t taken any damage from the fall.

I reached down and pulled the Winchester from its saddle holster. Thankfully, the barrel wasn’t bent and there was nothing obvious wrong. I’d need to take it apart and make sure everything was in working order before I used it again, but the odds were good that it was fine.

First things first, I needed to gather my gear and make for the nearest homestead. Thankfully, I’d passed one a few miles back. I sure hoped the family there was friendly because the combination of my saddle and gear wasn’t light. I could only carry them so far and I didn’t want to leave anything behind because scavengers would come for Whiskey’s carcass and I wasn’t willing to take the risk that they’d leave the equipment I left behind untouched.

Burying the stallion wasn’t an option. He was close to half a ton and I wouldn’t be able to move him. Besides, the scavengers would just dig him up anyway.

It took some doing to remove the saddle. I guess I should have been happy Whiskey was a Morgan and not one of those draft horses they used to pull artillery or supplies.

“Still thinking like a soldier,” I snorted to myself as I slowly worked the saddle free. I guess it made sense after so many years in uniform, but I swore that that part of my life was over. I’d fought in the War to Preserve the Union and the Indian Wars that came after. I was done fighting. It was time to enjoy the fruits of my labor, whatever that meant.

The trip to the homestead was worse than I expected. I had to be lugging eighty pounds between my saddle, guns and gear, and I was traveling light. The smart thing to do would have been to look around and create some sort of litter to carry everything. I could have then dragged it all behind me, but I’d convinced myself out of it when the idea first came to mind because of the amount of brush I’d have to navigate. I’d nearly changed my mind when I finally arrived.

The sun was on the horizon and close to setting, but it was still easy enough to make out the ranch. The main house was off to the left while the stable was to the right. Both looked to be in good repair. I thought to make my way to the house when I heard someone in the stable. I figured it might be best to wait for whoever it was to come out. I didn’t want to spook anyone into doing something stupid.

I moved to the corral and placed my saddle and gear over one of the fence posts. I damn near groaned in relief as I rotated my arms and stretched my back. That’s when the person in the stable came out into the corral leading a horse.

The sun was behind them so I couldn’t make them out clearly, but the lines of the horse were definitely promising. I thought that the woman leading it was a small man at first because she was wearing pants and chaps, but her outline made the fact that she was female obvious. That’s not to say that she was overly curvy. She wasn’t, but there was just something about the way she moved that was all woman despite the men’s clothes she was wearing.

She was so focused on the horse that she didn’t notice me at first. I started to make my presence known, but hesitated when she started working with the horse. It quickly became obvious that the woman knew what she was doing.

I’m not sure what came over me, but the sight of her and the horse working together with the sun setting behind them got to me. It was somehow peaceful and comforting to an old soldier like me. That’s why I became annoyed when I felt someone sneaking up behind me.

Whoever it was, was doing their best not to make a sound, but compared to some of the Rebs and Indians I’d faced, they were sorely lacking. I turned and drew my Peacemaker in one smooth motion. I wasn’t a gunslinger or anything, but I’d had enough practice to surprise whoever was behind me.

I saw the rifle pointed in my direction and nearly pulled the trigger, but thankfully the person behind the gun squeaked in surprise and stepped back, making the barrel waver when they realized I was ready for them. Whoever it was, was either young or female, possibly both. That didn’t mean I was going to ignore the old Henry rifle pointed at me.

“Name’s Josiah Mosey,” I said in as calm a tone as I could. The would-be bushwhacker looked to be a girl, and a might young one at that. I was guessing a teenager, somewhere around fourteen, maybe a bit older. Unlike the woman in the corral, she was wearing a long skirt. That didn’t make the rifle in her hand any less dangerous. “My horse broke his leg out on the prairie and I had to put him down. I passed here earlier in the day and was hoping to either buy another horse or get a ride to the nearest town. I don’t mean you or any of yours any harm.”

“You look like a horse thief to me!” Her tone was downright hostile and her eyes flashed angrily despite my soothing words. She was a pretty little thing with blond hair and sky-blue eyes. I expect she couldn’t see me any better than I could her friend in the corral because of the setting sun. Seeing a person is shadows tended to give most people a bad impression. I would have shifted to the side so she could get a better look at me, but I had the feeling that moving would be a mistake right about now.

I was pretty sure that the young woman couldn’t hit the side of a barn with the way she was holding the rifle, but I couldn’t take that chance. If she shot at me, I’d kill her. Plain and simple.

“Why don’t we both put our weapons down and talk? I promise not to move until you and your friend behind me are satisfied that I’m not dangerous.”

I’d heard the woman from the corral make her way forward from behind me. I also heard her drawing my Centennial from saddle holster. I sighed, not bothering to turn toward her. This situation was going from bad to worse.

“I wouldn’t use that Winchester. My horse fell on it when he broke his leg and I haven’t had a chance to fully check it out yet.”

“You want me to shoot him Abigail?” The girl in front of me sounded game. I would have been more concerned if the weight of the Henry wasn’t clearly starting to wear on her. The barrel kept dropping. There was a long silent pause.

“Clementine, put the rifle down before you get us both killed.” The voice sounded surprisingly calm. It was a touch raspy, but very female. “Best case, with the way your aiming you’ll hit him in the leg. That won’t stop him from killing you. I might be able to shoot him first with this Centennial, but I don’t think he’s lying about his horse falling on it and I’d rather not take the chance of it blowing up in my face.”

“But if he’s a horse thief…”

“Clem, put it down.” I couldn’t tell the age of the woman behind me, but she was clearly the older of the two. I was guessing sister and not mother based on the conversation. “If he wanted to steal a horse then walking onto the ranch carrying a saddle just before sunset would be awfully stupid.”

“But he looks dangerous!”

“He is dangerous,” the woman behind me clarified. “And yet he hasn’t shot you yet so that’s saying something. He could have done it before I reached his rifle. He clearly knew what I was doing despite having his back to me.”

The little blond in front of me still hesitated. I’d been forcing myself to be patient which was never one of my virtues. Of course, I’d gotten better over the years like most people, I guess, but it was wearing thin right about now.

“I would have waited until after midnight and snuck in while you were all asleep if I were a horse thief,” I interjected. There were actually a lot of ways to go about stealing horses. I’d done a lot of them in my younger days down in the south, but that was war for you. We’d raid the southern towns and steal horses and provisions while the Rebs would do the same in the north.

“If you’re not a horse thief why didn’t you announce yourself?” Damn. It was a fair question and an embarrassing one to answer.

“I was about to, but got distracted.” I hoped that was enough, but the teenager wasn’t buying it. I sighed and added, “The young woman behind me is clearly very good with horses and the sun was just setting behind them. The sight of them moving together was impressive.”

The blond hesitated a moment later before finally dropped the barrel of her rifle so it pointed toward the ground. She also shook her head and added with more than a touch of sarcasm. “Men! Always distracted by a pretty skirt, even when the woman isn’t wearing one.”

“Enough Clementine.” Apparently, I wasn’t the only one embarrassed by what the teenager was implying. I lowered my Peacemaker and shifted position so I could see both women. I have to admit, I was more than a little curious about Abigail.

The sun was dropping below the horizon quickly now and the woman was leaned forward and looking away from me as she put my Winchester back in its saddle holster. She was still difficult to make out so I stepped closer to get a better look.

The first and most noticeable thing about Abigail was the scar that ran from the corner of her eye down the length of her left cheek. It surprised me, but I took it in stride. I’d seen it’s like before. It was obviously the result of a knife wound, and not a small one at that. I’d seen plenty of them through the years some a lot more gruesome that hers.

Abigail stood as I moved closer and watched me carefully. There was a touch of concern there, but also something else. Actually, a couple of something elses, all of which combined, caused me to shift back into my original position as she stood there facing me. It wasn’t her scar that made me do it either, although it was possible that she thought so.

No, my reaction was a direct result of what I saw in her eyes. There was an obvious warning there that was anything but false bravado. I wasn’t the only dangerous person here. I’d met enough to know one when I saw one, man or woman.

Abigail had met the darker side of human nature and faced it down. That much was as obvious as the scar that marred her face. It was a damn shame too because it was a pretty face before she’d been marked.

Not that she wasn’t still attractive in her way. Abigail stood tall and straight, and had a well-formed body which was impossible to miss despite the fact that she was wearing men’s clothing. Her hair was tied in a long braided that came over her shoulder and currently rested down between her breast. She saw me glance at it and quickly pushed the braid back over her shoulder. I thought it was strawberry blond in color, but it was tough to tell in the light.

Abigail was a bit older than I expected, but still probably near a decade my junior. I was guessing her somewhere in her late twenties. She had blue eyes that were a touch deeper in color than Clementine’s. Hell, they were deeper in more than just color.

I’d been a lifelong soldier up until recently, but that didn’t mean I hadn’t met some interesting women along the way. I’d even married once, but I’d never reacted toward any of them the way I was Abigail. Frankly, it was a bit jarring and threw me. That combined with the returned interest in her eyes is what made me step back from her. Still I stared, trying to come to grips with what I was feeling. I was pretty sure the strawberry blond was doing the same.

“Don’t you think it’s time you holster that pistol?” Clementine’s question broke me from my stunned reaction to Abigail. I silently cursed my stupidity. Now was not the time to be distracted by a pretty skirt, as the blond put it earlier.

“You’re still holding the Henry,” I replied with a shrug, turning toward the teenager. It was safer to stay focused on her.

The fact that Clementine was still holding a rifle that was clearly too heavy for her to use accurately had little to do with why I still held my Peacemaker, but she didn’t need to know that.

“Give me that before you hurt somebody,” Abigail said as she climbed over the corral. The teenager moved to her and handed the older woman the rifle. That made me feel better, but still didn’t get rid of the itch I’d felt at my back ever since I discovered the teenager sneaking up on me.

The strawberry blond took the Henry from Clementine which was both good news and bad. The good news was that I trusted her a lot more not to do something stupid. The bad was that she looked awfully comfortable holding the rifle. Unlike the teenager, Abigail was definitely the type to hit what she aimed at.

“You’re going to have to put the colt away if you expect us to trust you.” It was a seemingly reasonable statement, especially coming from Abigail. The only problem was that all my years of army training warned me against doing it.

I took a deep breath and let it out slow before holstered my weapon. I wasn’t in the army any longer. I was facing a family on their farmstead, not the Rebs of my youth or the more recent Indians. Trust was a mutual kind of thing. In order to earn it, I had to offer it.

It would have been a lot easier if I didn’t know that the itch I was feeling meant there was someone else out there with a gun pointed at me. I decided to trust that he or she wouldn’t shoot. At least whoever it was, was much better at sneaking around than Clementine. That meant training and that gave me hope.

I was pretty sure that the person was perched in the stable loft. I heard something from that direction while facing off with Clementine. It had been a slight sound, but it didn’t belong and I’d been hyper aware at the time. I shifted a couple of feet to the right so that the two women were in a direct line between me and the stable. That made me feel a lot better. It was time to end this, one way or the other.

“Now why don’t you tell whoever is in the loft to come on down? It’s too dark for them to be sure of hitting me at that distance, especially with you two standing between us.” Clementine’s eyes grew big, but the strawberry blond didn’t seem surprised by my words.

“Dang it!” the cry came from exactly where I thought it would. It was an older man’s voice and he was clearly unhappy. I couldn’t make out the words, but he continued to cuss as he noisily made his way down from the loft and out of the stable.

Clementine looked nervous as the man stomped toward us. He was carrying an old Spenser Rifle, but I was betting it was well cared for and that he was good with it. I would have been more concerned if I didn’t notice that Abigail was fighting a smile. She clearly loved the old man and wasn’t particularly concerned about the obvious temper he was in.

He was a smallish man with a full thatch of white hair. His skin was sun bleached and he limped badly, but he moved like a man confident in himself despite his age and infirmities.

“Girl, what part of wait until I give the signal didn’t you understand?” he snapped at Clementine, ignoring me for the moment. “I wasn’t only halfway up the loft when I heard you two jabbering! Gave me heart palpitations, it did. Dang near caused me to fall off the ladder!”

“Sorry Grandpappy!” the teenager cried, sounding and looking like she meant it. “I couldn’t see him clear with the sun setting behind him. I didn’t think he’d hear me sneaking closer.”

“Granddaughter, just because I showed you a few things from my scouting days, that don’t mean you’re good enough to sneak up on a man like this one. He’s carry both a Peacemaker and Centennial. That means he’s dangerous. He’s also not a particularly young pup which means he’s experienced.” There was frustration in his voice, but also love and concern. “And I know’d the sun was in your eyes. That’s why I was making my way to the stables so I had a clearer shot, just in case.”

“And you,” he sighed, turning to Abigail. “You did a good job keeping your head and not letting the situation get out of hand, but then you go and let him put you and Clementine between us and block my shot.”

“I did it on purpose Uncle William,” Abigail answered unapologetically in that same calm voice she’d used earlier. “I figured he knew about you when he didn’t put the Peacemaker away after Clementine lowered the Henry and I put his Winchester back in its saddle holster. Besides, he was careful not to turn his back on the stable without ever looking in your direction.”

“So that made you decide to put you and your cousin at risk?” The incredulousness in his voice damn near dripped with the emotions behind his words.

“Uncle William, if he really was a horse thief or something worse, he most likely wouldn’t have come in the way he did. It seemed to me that he was doing his best not to let the situation get out of hand, but he obviously wasn’t the trusting type. I needed to do something to put him at ease. I figured having Clementine and me between him and you would make him comfortable enough to put away the gun.”

“And if you’d been wrong about him being trustworthy?” her uncle asked in annoyance. She met his eyes before answering.

“Then I’d have shot him with the Henry.” Her matter of fact tone in talking about killing me would have frightened some people. It made me smile.

I liked a smart woman, especially one who could take care of herself. The west was no place for one of those sheltered girls from back east. My one-time wife had been like that. She’d said she loved me, but only spent two months at the fort I’d been stationed at before running back east to her family.

“I expect you would have,” William said after a brief pause, sounding much calmer as he finally turning toward me.

“Calvary scout?” he asked without preamble.

“Yes, sir. Once upon a time.” It was the truth too. Of course, I’d been a lot of things during my sixteen years of service in the army.

“Thought so,” the old man smiled, holding out his hand and introducing him. “William Holbrook. In my younger days, I served as a scout in the Mounted Ranger Battalion and later in the First Dragoons.” Both units were the precursors to the U.S. Calvary. I wasn’t surprised. The old man had the look.

“Josiah Mosey,” I replied easily, quickly deciding this old man and I were going to get along fine. There was something likable about him. I didn’t like to talk about my army career, but it would have been rude to leave it at that. “I served in the War to Preserve the Union and stayed on for the Indian Wars up until a few months ago.”

“You mean the War of Northern Aggression!” Clementine interjected angrily. I’d seen the reaction before.

“Sorry for your loss.” I refused to be bated into an argument with the teenager, especially one who’d clearly loss someone close.

“Her father died fighting for the South at the Battle of Spottsylvania. Her mother died in Savannah with most of his family,” William explained, his expression showing an old pain. “I wasn’t happy when my daughter moved south to be closer to her husband’s family, but I understood and Jonathan was good man.”